March 19, 2016
Embrace Philosophy for Meaningful Education
Before I even began my foray into Additional Maths in Form Four, I was already told how formidable it would be. That was probably not a good mindset to start with.
Then one fine day, my teacher came into class and discussed differentiation (a process in calculus) out of nowhere. I was lost. My mind could not process the idea despite reading the brief introduction in the textbook.
I do not blame my teacher in any way as she had a class of nearly 40 students and a tight schedule to keep. However, from that day up till the day I closed my maths books for the last time after A-levels, I had severe difficulties with this subject.
Then in the first year of university, for the first time in my life, I had access to books on philosophy. It only took a few pages from a book on the philosophy of mathematics for me to understand the idea behind calculus. Suddenly the exercises with which I had problems the past five years clicked into place. That was my discovery of the power of philosophy.
Farouk Peru, this is my recommendation–Din Merican
According to a pilot study of schools in the UK conducted by Durham University, the teaching of philosophy in schools dramatically improves pupils’ maths and English skills. In addition to that, pupils from relatively more deprived backgrounds have found even more benefits in studying philosophy and found great interest in concepts such as truth, justice and knowledge. All pupils under this scheme found their math skills improved in just two months, on average. Quite a remarkable achievement indeed.
Given my aforementioned experience with the philosophy of mathematics, I find this very unsurprising. Philosophy is the missing element in the Malaysian education system. However, the solution is not simply to unload Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy onto our students.
This turnkey style solution would only serve to bore the students even more. While Russell’s work is remarkably comprehensive, it is also toilsome reading. For bright young minds, I highly recommend Bryan McGee’s The Story Of Philosophy. It has more pictures (which is by no means insulting but gives a more holistic reading experience) and gives a better correlation with history. This is the approach we must take with a philosophical education.
A great misconception people tend to have with philosophy is that it is dauntingly academic and must be taught in the chronology found in its historical accounts like Russel’s. That is simply not the case.
On the contrary, it can also help if the subject is taught in reverse order, that is, starting from contemporary philosophy working its way back to the Greeks or even before. The key here is relevance.
When the students see that philosophy is intertwined with current events, they would then be able to appreciate that it is not a “pie in the sky” type subject. For example, the current American political drama in the run-up to the presidential elections can be reflected in its political philosophy, especially related to foreign policy.
Another element we need to think about before introducing philosophy in schools is the very idea of standardised testing. Philosophy tends to resist this form of examination most strongly.
I would go so far as to say that philosophy is the anti-thesis of standardised testing. I would highly recommend teaching this subject without examination. Instead, see it as an investment to produce the skill of thinking which can then be applied in other, most test worthy subjects. This would make the subject a lot more attractive to students.
The teaching of philosophy can also help produce a coherent national identity. In our case, we lack huge collections of tomes. Therefore, we need to see philosophy beyond the bounds of philosophical tomes.
Malay philosophy lacks long academic treatise (with perhaps the exception of Malay Sufism) but makes up for it with its vast oral culture. These oral transmissions need to be collected and formulated to form a Malay philosophy.
Along with this, writings by the first generations of Chinese and Indian immigrants into Malaya and the native philosophies of the Sabah and Sarawak people can form a true Malaysian philosophy.
These writings can include fiction-based philosophy as well (like the works of Sartre and Camus). This will make the subject of philosophy itself far more interesting as it relates to our national identity.
There is a reason Malaysia is currently in intellectual doldrums and that is our current socio-political milieu does not find it expedient to produce thinkers. Thinkers would end up questioning the status quo. Nevertheless, there are “street thinkers” who exist outside academia. However, without the teaching of formal philosophy in schools, we would never be able to awaken a national atmosphere of intellectualism.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.